Canary Outside the Coal Mine: Exploring Perspectives from Paul First Nation on Canada’s Just Transition for Coal Power Communities

By Kabir Nadkarni

Have you ever wondered where the “canary in a coal mine” idiom comes from? Due their heightened sensitivity to deadly pollutants such as carbon monoxide, canaries are a bird species that have historically been used in coal mines in the 1800s, as indicators of when a mine needs to be evacuated to save the lives of hundreds of coal miners.[1] However, trends in technological disruption have not only made canaries obsolete, but are now making coal mining itself an outmoded industry. Due to breakthroughs in shale natural gas and power from wind turbines being produced at less than one third the cost of coal, as well as a global gradual phase-out of coal-fired power to mitigate dangerous climate change and improve air quality, coal-fired power plants and coal mining are both industrial sectors that are in a period of rapid decline globally.[2] In Alberta, 60% of our electricity in 2016 was produced from coal-fired power. However, the Government of Alberta is taking advantage of technological advances to take leadership on climate change and respiratory health and has legislated a policy to phase-out coal-fired power entirely by 2030. Industry is by itself accelerating this transition, with all but one coal-fired power producer announcing their conversions to natural gas as early as 2022 to capitalize on low alternative energy costs.[3] This coal phase-out represents one of the biggest developments in Alberta’s power and mining industries in the last several decades.

Figure 1: A giant drag line works in the Highvale Coal Mine to feed the nearby Sundance Power Plant near Wabamun in 2014. John Lucas, Edmonton Journal Archives

In a period of such rapid industrial transformation, a metaphorical canary outside the coal mine can serve as a harbinger of the future, helping nearby communities foresee how they can adjust environmentally and economically to changes in an industry close to their lands, and how best they can benefit from such a transition. Through my stretch summer project as a community consultant, I am acting as a metaphorical “canary outside the coal mine” for Paul Band, a Treaty Six First Nation near Canada’s largest surface coal mine (Highvale mine around the Wabamun region) undergoing an accelerated phase-out, to help their community navigate its own development beyond the coal industry. Specifically, I am consulting Paul First Nation as they participate in negotiations with the federal and provincial governments on their “Just Transition” beyond coal fired power. The “Just Transition” is a framework that encompasses a range of social interventions needed to secure workers’ jobs and livelihoods when economies are shifting toward sustainable production, and has historically been used in industrial transformations related to avoiding climate change, protecting biodiversity, helping tobacco plantation communities, and ending war.[4]  Fundamentally, a “Just Transition” will help coal-reliant communities like Paul First Nation thrive in the long-term with respect to economic performance, social development, and environmental protection. Importantly, in resource-reliant communities like many others in Alberta, the Just Transition framework is needed in order to tactically align international climate policy objectives with goals related to local economic growth and long-term job security.

Fundamentally, a “Just Transition” will help coal-reliant communities like Paul First Nation thrive in the long-term with respect to economic performance, social development, and environmental protection.

One responsibility I have as a community consultant to Paul First Nation includes working together with one of Paul’s industry liaisons to co-author a policy submission with detailed recommendations on behalf of the community for the federal government’s Just Transition Task Force.[5] During my research for this government consultation, one significant finding I have come across is that despite coal-fired power being phased out on the grounds of health concerns with poor air quality, there has been little to no attention paid to the disparity of this impact by geographic region. Importantly, findings from other jurisdictions that have undergone coal phase-outs have revealed that nearby populations are often the most impacted by poor air quality (for instance, in terms of maternal health and black lung disease), and Indigenous reserve communities like Paul Band often do not have the resources to adequately overcome these health burdens experienced by their members.[6] Other significant findings that I have come across in my research so far include tangible job opportunities related to wind energy and mine reclamation, as well as measures that the federal government can take through the Just Transition initiative to protect Paul Band’s cultural heritage and historical sites and better meet their own commitments to Indigenous reconciliation.

Through the process of interacting with the industry liaisons, elders, youth and other members of Paul Band through this project, there are a few key learnings that I have been able to develop so far:

  1. In Indigenous economic development, monetary capital is needed for sure, but so is technical capacity and leadership. That takes dedication and long-term commitment from local leaders.
  2. Engineers and business professionals have an important leadership role to fulfill in the Just Transition and in the Truth and Reconciliation: We must deploy technical skills to help meet the objectives of environmental stewardship and socially conscious economic development
  3. Finally, environmental stewardship and economic development can happen hand-in-hand: Indigenous communities across Canada are setting a very strong example for us on how, and I’m excited to see it happen in Paul Band too. For instance, Canada’s Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of renewable energy development.[7]

Overall, this stretch project is proving to be a rich learning opportunity and leadership development experience for me. I am learning not only about the intersection of climate policy and labour and economic development, but also about relationships between Alberta’s energy industries and Indigenous communities. As a “canary outside the coal mine” in Paul First Nation, I hope that my foresight and research can make some difference in helping the community attain its long-term vision for growth and development even despite some major changes to industrial and economic circumstances nearby.


Kabir Nadkarni is pursuing a B.Sc. in Engineering Physics (Co-op) with a Certificate in Interdisciplinary Leadership at the University of Alberta, as a Loran Scholar. As a proactive problem-solver, Kabir’s key skills are in quantitative and computational analysis, effective interdisciplinary communication, and visionary team leadership. Kabir has a demonstrable interest in sustainability, energy technologies, environmental policy, and community economic development.











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